On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

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Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Corruption.

The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

My 2018 Reading List

Two years ago I started to use a theme for my year of reading. This was an attempt to focus on one form or style for study. I did a year of giant novels and then a year of short fiction. This year I wanted to challenge myself to read something I have almost no familiarity with.

This will be The Year of Mystery Novels. I came to the realization that I’d never read any mystery novel, maybe ever. I haven’t even read classics like Sherlock Holmes or anything by Agatha ChristieYikes!

Sure, I’ve read the Dresden Files, but those are urban fantasy with mystery elements. I’ve read plenty of novels that have mysteries in them, but the mystery novel itself is different. It stands or falls on the ability to keep the reader surprised, guessing, and intrigued about a mystery.

This is an ability all novelists could use to up their writing. So, this year, I want to explore what makes a mystery novel work. My goal is to read ten, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  3. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  4. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  6. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
  7. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
  8. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Bern

I need two more, so if you love mysteries and see something missing, let me know. I’m also not locked in to any of these. I tried to get a huge range from classic procedural to modern paranormal to experimental to literary.

As for the rest of my reading, I usually shoot for 52 books a year. That’s one book a week. It’s enough that I have to keep reading to do it, but it’s not stressful if I miss a few days for illness or travel or something.

Other than mysteries, I want to read about ten books written in 2018. At the end of last year, I realized I dropped the ball on current literature. I will also shoot for about ten nonfiction books. That leaves twelve books that I’ll probably fill in on a whim. I’m in the middle of a few fantasy series, so it will mostly be those (Malazan, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, Dresden Files).

My 2017 Reading Awards

As usual, I’m going to do a best of 2017 books list. This does not mean the book came out in 2017; it means I read it this year. According to Goodreads, I read 55 books. Of course, many of those were novellas, and probably a dozen I listened to while on long runs training for a half marathon. So don’t get too freaked out by that number.

 

BEST OVERALL:

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

My thoughts are recorded here.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I read this divided into four novels. Only The Sword of the Lichtor stood out at the time as excellent. But if the four are taken as one single novel, then I think this deserves best overall. Even ten months later, I continue to think about it. It’s fascinating how I’ll be reading something else, and I realize something about this book. I think: Oh, that’s what that probably meant.

I remain haunted by its strangeness, and how perfect and shocking it was to realize certain things right in front of me the whole time were something totally different. (I’m remaining intentionally vague to not spoil it for anyone).

 

BEST SCI-FI/FANTASY:

Imajica – Clive Barker

I know Clive Barker writes “horror,” but this novel is fantasy through and through. Nothing has influenced my writing this year more than this novel. Further thoughts here.

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson

This is some of the best written, most inventive/unique, and deep fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the Malazan series. I have the second one sitting on my shelf.

Analysis of the prose can be found here.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

This was an impeccably written and gripping story of a group of poor boys working hard to achieve their Olympic dreams. The pacing and prose are better than most fiction books I’ve read. Daniel James Brown has produced something beautiful here.

The story also serves as a much needed reminder that intercontinental sport competition and the Olympics in particular are never really just friendly shows of competition. They are highly political acts that can have real-world implications.

From the 1936 games under Hitler to the Munich massacre in ’72 to the recent use of victory at the Sochi Olympics for Russia to invade Crimea and Ukraine, this book should serve as a wake up call to anyone under false delusions about what’s really going on.

The Case Against Sugar – Gary Taubes

The book starts with the analogy of a trial. Sugar is being prosecuted for many of the illnesses associated with obesity: diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, etc. This book is the case against sugar.

Am I convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt? No. And if you were, you didn’t understand the arguments. In nutrition science, one will never reach that point. It isn’t even theoretically possible to tease out such complicated interactions.

Am I convinced there is a preponderance of evidence? Of course! I would again say that if you can’t convict at this standard based on the case made in this book, you just haven’t understood the arguments and evidence.

The fact that this evidence standard is good enough to convict in many civil and criminal cases means we, as a society, need to take sugar more seriously. It’s an addictive drug and there’s a preponderance of evidence that it causes four of the top ten leading causes of death each year.

Dialogue – Robert McKee

This was quite excellent and a must read for all writers of fiction. Note: the book is NOT about how two characters converse with each other. This touches upon all aspects of prose, because even exposition is a type of dialogue between the narrative perspective and the reader.

The most useful part to me was the constant reiteration of how great works and complex characters use subtext. People rarely say what they mean or what they think. When your fictional characters do this, they come across as underdeveloped and one dimensional.

The price of the book is worth it for the in-depth analysis of several scenes from famous works at the end.

 

BEST RELEASED IN 2017:

I’m going to skip this category this year. There were a bunch of books that came out that looked great, but I never got around to them. The Case Against Sugar wins by default. Instead, I’ll list books that came out this year that I want to read.

Oathbringer – Brandon Sanderson

Exit West – Moshin Hamid

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

 

Year of Short Fiction Part 0

If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that 2016 was the Year of Giant Novels. I got kind of burned out on that by the end, so I decided to make 2017 the Year of Short Fiction. I thought I’d spend a post talking about my expectations for this and what I plan to read (and take suggestions).

First off, I’ve read a bunch of short stories and posted analysis here in the past. So I wanted to collect some of them here for pre-reading if you’re interested. I also want them all in one place for easy reference for myself while going through this year.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Lost in the Funhouse

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I think there are some more, but these are the ones that get the most views on the blog.

Expectations: I’m pretty excited for this, because well-written short stories can be great. I also think the novella is a vastly underappreciated form. There are a ton of hidden gem novellas that haven’t been discovered because they aren’t marketable. The length is too short to appeal to people that like novels and too long for people who want 15 minute stories. This didn’t used to be the case when you look to the past: James, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wharton, and even Dickens (and more) have excellent and popular novellas.

Short fiction can accomplish much of the emotional or thematic resonance of a long novel in a fraction of the space. But to do this, the language must be much tighter. Novels can afford to meander or falter on the amount of description. Short fiction can’t.

This means I should be able to dive deep into the art and craft of prose. I should also spend a lot less time complaining about filler. I think that was my biggest surprise with the Year of Giant Novels. Some great novels need all that room, but most do not. I found myself sifting through a tedium of excess that should have been cut by an editor who knew better.

My guess is that this series should mostly replace my Examining Pro’s Prose series, since we’ll being doing it in the course of this series.

I also hope to encounter short story collections that don’t work. Many novelists take a crack at short story collections without realizing it is a completely different skill. If the description/pacing/etc are done in the same way as a novel, it will fail miserably. It could be instructive to dive into ways short fiction fails.

Right now, for me, Joyce’s Dubliners is the quintessential example of the short story collection done right. Some of those stories pack a serious punch with deep emotional content with fewer words than this blog post. I hope to find some more examples of this to point people to this year.

Right now, I don’t plan on re-reading story collections I’ve read in the past. This, unfortunately, rules out some great stuff like anything by David Foster Wallace or James Joyce. The goal is to expand my horizons.

Here’s what I have on the list so far:

Short Story Collections:

Gene Wolfe – The Fifth Head of Cerberus (these might be better classified as novellas?)

Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

Roxane Gay – An Untamed State

Italo Calvino – Cosmicomics

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Novellas:

Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I’ve never read this?!)

Kate Chopin – The Awakening

Henry James – Daisy Miller

I’ll continue to add to this list as I come up with stuff. If you know of any you want me to do, please leave a comment. I’m very interested in finding great novellas written in the past 20 years. I know almost all of the above classify as “literary fiction,” but I’m not limiting myself to this. Tell me of some great sci-fi/fantasy if you know of any! Or even flash fiction collections could be interesting to look at.

 

Best Books I Read in 2016

I’ve finally finished my “book a week” challenge (meaning I’ve read, rated, and reviewed 52 books for the year). I actually read quite a few more than that but didn’t mark them down (on my Shannara binge, I was getting through them every 2-3 days).

This year I went through audiobooks more than any year in the past. My guess is they still made up less than half the books I read, but it’s close. I don’t know if I have relevant commentary on what this means. I still like reading actual books a lot more than listening, but if I’m out on a two-hour run, it feels wasteful to not put one on.

I rated ten of the books five stars. I thought I would only choose from this list, but I’ve now noticed some of the ones I hoped to talk about didn’t make this cut.

BEST OVERALL:

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Wow. I somehow went 27 years of my life without reading Atwood. This is my third book in three years. She is consistently one of the most original writers of our time. It is almost painful to realize this, because I only notice it as I’m reading her. So much of SF consists of doing a slight variant on the Hero’s Journey. She never stoops to this trope.

Atwood is like if Pynchon wrote an SF character study. The way this story gets told is a fascinating and delicate thing. There almost isn’t a story. She creates a magnificent world, rich in detail, and deep, believable characters. The story is an emergent property of these elements. It is such a breath of fresh air to have story subordinate to these elements rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure what my favorite Atwood is, because they are all so good and different. But it might be this one. Be warned, though, this novel is quite graphic and disturbing in parts. She hits the horror of a post-apocalyptic more than any other book I know.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Somehow there seems to be this swath of British novellas that pack more story and emotion into 150 pages than Americans can do in 500. Now that I’ve decided to do “The Year of Short Fiction” next year, I kind of wish I hadn’t found this until then.

The voice in this story is so compelling, I often looked up from the page confused that I wasn’t chatting with a longtime friend recounting some stories of his life I had missed.

This is a deep meditation on some facts we often want to forget. One: Life breezes by too quickly (which makes this short form such a great choice). Two: Little things we do that we don’t think of as mattering can be all-consuming wreckage for another life.

I’ll leave it at that.

2666 – Roberto Bolano

What can one even say about this book. I wrote a whole post on it here. Even that cannot summarize the artistic masterpiece that is this book.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

Blue Nights – Joan Didion

I’ve read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking several times. I had no idea, until recently, that she covered some of the same material in this newer book.

Didion is probably the best “creative nonfiction” writer out there. She meshes sterile facts with personal anecdote with repetitious use of poetic language to bring about real emotional depth to this tragic part of her life.

Galileo’s Middle Finger – Alice Dreger

This is probably one of the most important books of the year. It does a great job documenting the details of how highly-educated, social-justice motivated scientists can spin and falsify data to serve a narrative that isn’t necessarily the Truth. It shows how activists can malign and slander researchers who do controversial research (a fact we’ve already seen many times in the now infamous Twitter hate mobs that ruin ordinary people’s lives).

This book is truly terrifying. It reminds us that we live in a dangerous time. Lay people don’t have the time or resources to hunt through complicated, technical journal articles to see if there are problems. Working researchers have their own research to conduct, so they can’t do it either. But we need people in academia devoted to the pursuit of truth to keep vetting.

One of the scariest stories in this book showed how a biased researcher could get an error-ridden article published in a peer-reviewed journal because the editor and reviewer all had factors motivating them to publish it. Then the media and general public could point to this to make their case. Someone trying to explain how it got published would come off as a science-denying conspiracy theorist. So what is one to do?

This is a real problem, and the book only scratches the surface in laying foundations for minimizing this social justice skewing of science. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The activists have to realize that their activism is best served with truth. Faking it will only get people hurt, no matter how well-intentioned the motive.

 

BEST PUBLISHED IN 2016

A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin

I’ve been a long-time fan of Canin. Carry Me Across the Water and For Kings and Planets are both exquisite. I thought America, America had lost something in both style and substance. This novel continues on the same trajectory.

The first three-fourths had a flatness to it that his earlier novels didn’t have. His usual style is rich and complex and enhances the ordinary tragic experiences of people trying to live their lives.

The first part of the novel really gets what it is like to do high-level math in a way that no other novel has captured. At the same time, it relies on a tired trope: the mad genius with messed up social awareness. I couldn’t help but cringe when these stereotypes came forward.

Going into the last 100 pages or so, I was still on the fence about how much I liked it. I won’t give anything away, but the end is well worth getting to. He returns to his older, stylistic prose and delivers a stunning conclusion through poetic language and a brilliant shift in structure. This may not be my favorite Canin, but it is still the best novel I read published in 2016 and worth the time.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

Year of Giant Novels Part 4: The Way of Kings

The next giant novel of the year has been taking me quite a bit of time. I’ve chosen The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, to change things up a bit. It is the first book in a long epic fantasy series. I’ve written about Sanderson’s Mistborn in the past.

I didn’t worry about spoilers in the previous posts in this series, because the first few books were “classics.” The contents of those books are part of the fabric of Western culture. This book is still pretty new, and like most speculative fiction, the mysteries of the world are part of the fun. So I’m going to be vague sometimes. I promise not to spoil anything.

When I announced this series, I pointed out that the most common complaint in book reviews I made the previous year was that the book was too long. Unfortunately, I’m going to lodge the same complaint here. I see no excuse for it.

One of the features of this world is a place called the Shattered Plains. In order for cavalry fighting to occur here, men have to move large bridges by hand across these crags in the ground for the horses to run across. The Kaladin storyline has this happen probably five or so times. Showing this to us once was interesting. Reading five chapters where this happens is a slog.

I get it. He introduced new elements into those scenes. He developed the character. Blah, blah, blah. These aren’t legitimate excuses. Someone along the publication line should have said, “Those scenes get tedious to read, and they are all going to blur together in the reader’s mind a week after finishing the book anyway, so maybe you should combine them into one or two chapters.”

This would have worked wonders on the pacing. It would have meant a denser layering of new concepts, but this would be a small price to pay considering how few new concepts are introduced in these chapters. I can’t help but feel like these sections existed merely to make the book longer so that the series as a whole could rival giants like The Wheel of Time.

The description also got tedious. I found this a strange turn from his earlier stuff. He used to give excellent, brief details that told a lot about the world and culture and characters. The Way of Kings takes the “more is more” approach. Everything gets describe to a fault.

I get this is part of the “style” of the genre. People want to hear a million details about this fantasy world. But to me, it reads as lazy. It’s weird to call such a long book lazy, but this book came out after he got “famous.” It feels like he stopped working hard to find the right description and instead dumped everything onto to the reader hoping one of them was the right one.

The most interesting character for me is Shallan. She basically infiltrates her way into an apprenticeship to a scholar. There are a lot of complexities to her, and she gets put into interesting moral dilemmas that I cared about as a reader. She also interacts with people from different walks of life, which lends itself to a more natural exploration of the religions, cultures, and history of the world.

Unfortunately, her point of view disappears for huge chunks (I think over 300 pages at one point, a whole novel!). This makes the tedium I referred to above even worse, since I knew there were interesting parts I could be reading.

I once read a review that said Sanderson’s NaNoWriMo-esque speed of writing might be good for fans that just want to know what happens next, but it is beginning to show in the sloppiness of his writing for the rest of us. I can’t agree more. If this were carefully cut to 600-700 pages, it would be exactly the same book, but infinitely better.

I think that’s enough of the bad. Let’s get on to the good. The world is detailed and has a long, complicated history. We get glimpses of this past with enough detail that I fully believe Sanderson has a good idea about what went on. This is quite an impressive amount of depth to the world you don’t get from much epic fantasy (e.g. I’m not convinced Tolkien had pre-Third Age Middle Earth history worked out at the writing of The Lord of the Rings).

The magic system and sword/armor systems were original and neat. Actually, most aspects of the world were interesting. I don’t blame him for wanting to drone on forever about them (please resist the urge in future books!). I mean, who puts giant crustaceans in epic fantasy? It is nice to get away from the dragon trope.

The characters weren’t bad, but they certainly felt a little one-dimensional at times. In a novel with this many characters, it’s good to have defining features to remind the reader who they were. When these features get repeated too much, the character becomes reduced to that feature. I’m not saying that happened in the book, but it was borderline sometimes.

Now I should make a disclaimer that I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, so things might turn around in the second half. I’m hopeful, since many people think this is the best modern work of fantasy out there right now. We’ll see.